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10 Weird and Wonderful Bird Nests

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It’s spring, and baby birds will soon be chirping in trees and rain gutters. But not all bird nests are created equal. Whether from mud, leaves, or saliva, here are 10 birds that make some of the most astounding structures in nature.

1. Sociable Weavers build giant haystacks in African trees.

Martin Heigan, Flickr 

This massive structure may look like a hay bale, but it’s actually a hive of nests. Like an apartment complex, it can house up to 400 Sociable Weavers. The thatched roof protects the birds in the South African or Namibian deserts by keeping the heat out by day and insulating from cold at night. Since the birds use the structure for generations, a nest can get up to 100 years old—that is, if it doesn’t break the tree limb first.

2. Malleefowl make giant mounds out of bird-made compost.

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The nesting mound of the Australian Malleefowl is among the biggest in the world. The record was 15 feet high and 35 feet across, according to Guinness World Records. To make the mound, the male bird digs a hole and fills it with organic matter such as leaves, sticks, and bark. He even turns the compost to speed decay, just like a gardener. When the compost heats up to 89 to 93 degrees, the female lays up to 18 eggs on it, one at a time. The eggs are covered in sand. During incubation, the male regulates the temperature of the mound using his beak like a thermometer. Despite all this, Malleefowl abandon their chicks as soon as they’re born.

3. Golden-headed Cisticolas sew like tailors.

The Golden-headed Cisticola from Australia uses spiderwebs to sew a living canopy out of leaves. Since the bird’s nest is only 20 inches off the ground, the camouflage protects it from predators. To make the canopy, the bird pierces the leaves with its needle-like beak and pulls a “thread” through to hold them together. This cozy cover anchors the nest so that it stays hidden as the plant grows.

4. Black Kites use trash to decorate their nests.

Fabrizio Sergio via LiveScience

Black Kites in Europe have adapted to humans by decorating their nests with strips of white plastic. While some scientists believe this is to camouflage the eggs, new research suggests that the plastic is really there to show off for other Black Kites. According to this theory, Black Kites view trash as a statement of power, like having a big house on a hill is to humans. Apparently, these birds take after people in more ways than one.

5. Edible-nest Swiftlets build nests out of saliva


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In caves in Southeast Asia, Edible-nest Swiftlets make cliffside nests out of layers of their own spit. The saliva sticks to the rock and hardens in a bracket shape that the bird uses to lay its eggs. The nests are also a sought-after delicacy for bird’s nest soup. They have no flavor and no nutritional content, but this doesn’t prevent them from being one of the most expensive foods in the world. People are so crazy for it that many countries regulate the bird nest industry to keep the swiftlet from dying out.

6. Rufous Hornero nests look like outdoor ovens

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The Rufous Hornero in South America is an ovenbird, so nicknamed because of how it makes its nest. The bird collects mud and manure and piles it into an upside-down bowl on a tree branch. The sun bakes the mud dry, making a sturdy structure resembling a clay oven. Since the birds build a new nest for every brood, there are often several mud nests in a row on the same branch, all made by the same birds.

7. Montezuma Oropendola nests look like hanging sacks.

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These birds from Central America weave pendulous nests out of vines and banana fibers. The nests can be 3 to 6 feet long and look like a ball hanging in a stocking. Since the birds live in colonies, there can be up to 150 of these nests extended from one tree, although usually it's more like 30. The female takes 9 to 11 days to make her nest. The male often watches her work, and if he doesn't like what he sees, he'll tear it apart and make her start over.

8. One Gyrfalcon nest was around when Jesus was alive.

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The Gyrfalcon (pronounced JER-fal-con) is a large white falcon that nests in cliffs in the Arctic. They use the same depression or scrape in the rock generation after generation. In 2009, researchers from the University of Oxford did radiocarbon dating on a Gyrfalcon nest and found that it was around 2500 years old. Three other nests were over 1000 years old, and fragments of gyrfalcon feathers were 600 years old. The birds have been continually using the nest since the Roman era.

9. Bald Eagle nests are huge.

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In true American style, Bald Eagles make nests far bigger than their needs would seem to indicate. When they first mate, the eagles make smaller nests, or aeries, 50 to 125 feet above the ground by layering branches and sticks in a triangular pattern. Every year, they add more to the nest until it becomes big enough for a human to sit on. The largest bird nest on record was a Bald Eagle nest found in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1963. It was 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

10. Hummingbird nests are tiny (and adorable).

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On the other end of the scale, hummingbird nests are so small that it’s easy to mistake them for knots in the trees. In fact, the smallest nest in the world is the Bee Hummingbird's nest, which is just over an inch wide. The hummingbird makes its cup-shaped nest by weaving spiderwebs with feathers and leaves to make it strong and stretchy, then covering the outside with lichen. The bird then lays two eggs, each the size of a coffee bean, inside. Awwww….

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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